There are several things that I can't deny about Kate Wilhelm's Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang: it has a great premise (clones at the apocalypse), it kept me interested the whole way through, and Wilhelm puts the cliche that genre writers can't write good prose to shame. It is full of beautiful descriptions and thrilling twists. However, Wilhelm clearly has a few points to make about real world social issues, and those points are not well argued.
This was the February selection for my Hugo Winners Book Club, and, perhaps ironically as it turns out, the first selection in the fledgling club's short history that is written by a woman. I call it ironic because it may be the least feminist novel that we've read so far. The novel is set at the end of the world, when a family of agrarian geneticists sets up a cloning facility in rural Virginia. How will the world end, you might wonder? Wilhelm seems as clueless as the rest of us, so she hedges her bets with vague references to natural disasters, nuclear war, and disease. In any event, you can be sure that it ended somehow.
The book has three sections, each focusing on a different character. The first, a brilliant scientist; the second, a clone girl; and the third, a boy raised by clones. Much of the beginning of the book deals with difficulties cloning humans as a result of the loss of clones during gestation in the cloning tanks. However, the first section has many very human elements, including issues of the death of loved ones and an unconventional love story. Once the cloning problems are solved and the clones are born and begin to grow, the real problems begin as the clones and humans have to acknowledge their differences and attempt to reclaim the remnants of civilization from the ruined cities of Washington DC and Philadelphia.
The real problems with the novel begin with the birth of the clones. Wilhelm decides to write the clones as a sort of hive mind, kind of similar to something like Children of the Damned. There is no scientific explanation for the phenomenon in the novel. However, Wilhelm still had not lost me at this point - I was ready to accept the clones as an awesome and potentially scary power even if I didn't understand quite how they got that way.
However, Wilhelm is not content to merely create a cautionary predecessor to Jurassic Park about genetic science and the dangers of playing God. Instead, she brings in elements about homosexuality and abortion. When I noticed these things, I began to wonder what she was trying to say as she wrote this novel in the shadow of Roe vs. Wade and in the midst of the sexual revolution. It is not immediately apparent, as Wilhelm (to her credit) does a good job of making the clones more than the two-dimensional evil beings that I thought she might be favoring. I wondered many times whether I was supposed to hate the clones or merely accept them as a different form of life.
However, the last section of the book left little doubt in my mind that she was presenting these topics in a negative light. She is certainly entitled to bring a conservative and cautionary voice to the topics, however she seems to take it to an extreme. In one scene, for example, a clone elementary school class is learning about the cloning process and abortion of the natural fetus (used as the cloning source material) comes up. The result is the clones sharing a hearty chuckle about how it's not necessarily a bad thing when naturally conceived babies have to be aborted. If abortion is nothing else it is a controversial and complicated part of our society, and dismissing it as the joyous act of aggrandized monsters seems both careless and ignorant. As the book progresses, it seems like Wilhelm is presenting a choice - the way we conceive now or a totalitarian society forcing unnatural conception on unwilling people. The final chapter goes even further, suggesting that a society that accepts cloning, homosexuality, and abortion can only lead to extinction.
In the end, these are not messages that I can get behind, no matter how much talent or how many awards Wilhelm possesses. If it was her intent to have a conversation about these issues, then I will go as far as agreeing that it is an admirable goal for a science fiction novel. However, if starting a nuanced and valuable dialogue was her goal, I think she failed miserably.
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